I am currently researching an article that I am writing for work that involves genetics.
I already knew about Crick and Watson, two scientists awarded the Nobel prize in 1962 partly for developing the first accurate DNA model. What I wanted to find out, however, was who had first seen DNA and when.
In doing this research, I was appalled to learn that the legacy of what may be the greatest contribution to medicine in the 20th century--possibly ever--may have been stolen from Rosalind Franklin, whose contributions were buried for more than a decade under a thick layer of sexism. This monumental accomplishment was thusly also stolen from women, forever placed in the men's column.
I would like to do my part to reclaim, or, at the very least, increase awareness of, Rosalind Franklin's part in discovering the structure of the DNA matrix.
Franklin, born in 1920, was English and Jewish, descended from generations of scholars and intellectuals. In the 2002 book Rosalind Franklin: the dark lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox, her mother is quoted as saying Franklin knew by age 16 that she wanted to be a scientist.
After studying physics and chemistry in college, Franklin earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from Cambridge University in 1945.
Rosalind’s "upper second" on her Cambridge final degree examinations qualified her for a graduate research scholarship, but she did not interact well with her supervisor, Professor R.G.W Norrish. One contributory reason, he expressed to Franklin biographer Anne Sayre, was that he did not approve of Rosalind’s interest in "raising the status of her sex to equality with men."
In 1951, she joined the staff at King's College, where her DNA odyssey begins.
Maurice Wilkins, a fellow researcher at King's, was working on a DNA project, and he suggested to his superior that they recruit Franklin--already a distinguished chemist--to assist. By some accounts, Franklin was recruited under the guise that she would be conducting the DNA research herself. Wilkins assumed she was his assistant and initially treated her as such, though he later acknowledged she was a fellow and his peer. Franklin is said to have taken offense to what she viewed as Wilkins' condescending treatment of her, and she proceeded to work on her portion of the DNA project exclusively with graduate student Raymond Gosling.
Wilkins seems to have been intimidated by Franklin (often characterized as 'abrasive') and described her unfavorably to other scientists with whom he associated, like Watson and Crick at Cambridge University. This may be why, in Watson's book outlining the discovery, titled The Double Helix, he depicts Franklin as Wilkins' subordinate. Watson also refers to Franklin in the book by the patronizing "Rosy," a nickname she never used. Watson only met Franklin three times, yet he described her essentially as unpleasant and seemingly clueness about the importance of her own data. He even criticized her appearance:
...[S]he did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents...Unfortunately...there was no denying she had a good brain...[but] the thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist is in another person's lab.
Crick, to his credit, vehemently disagreed with Watson's description of Franklin: "I don't think Rosalind saw herself as a crusader or pioneer. I think she just wanted to be treated as a serious scientist." (Not to mention, Franklin did not wear glasses and, her friends said, did wear lipstick, suggesting that Watson fabricated the whole depiction of "Rosy.") Franklin was a serious scientist, and at King's College, she and Gosling perfected Franklin's X-ray crystallization techniques that eventually allowed her to take the best photographs up to that date of DNA. Wilkins thoughtlessly betrayed his King's College colleague, showing Franklin's best photograph to Watson and Crick. Wilkins had obtained the photograph in a report handed in to Wilkins by Gosling for grading (from The Double Helix):
[Wilkins] revealed that...he had quietly been duplicating some of Rosy's and Gosling's X-ray work...Then the even more important cat was let out of the bag: Since the middle of the summer Rosy had had evidence for a new three-dimensional form of DNA...When I asked what the pattern was like, Maurice went into an adjacent room to pick up a print of the new form they called the "B" structure. The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race. The pattern was unbelievably simpler than those obtained previously...and Maurice told me he was now quite convinced she was correct.
In the photograph (seen here: http://osulibrary.oregonstate.edu/... ), Watson saw evidence of DNA's double helical structure and began to theorize about the model. Wilkinson also gave him key information about the photograph that was essential to the eventual model Crick and Watson later constructed.
Watson was an ornithologist by training. Though he attended one of Franklin's lectures on DNA in 1951, prior to seeing the photograph, he later admitted not understanding much of it and not taking any notes. After the lecture, however, he and Crick built their first DNA model, basing it on Linus Pauling's work:
Overjoyed at solving DNA so quickly, they invited Wilkins and his assistant, Rosalind Franklin, to have a look at their structure. Expecting praise, they were undoubtedly surprised when Franklin verbally destroyed their work. She told them that any positive ions found in the core would be surrounded by water, which would render them neutral and unable to cancel out the negative phosphate charges. She also noted that DNA soaks up a large amount of water, which indicates that the phosphate groups are on the outside of the molecule. All in all, Franklin had no positive feedback for Watson and Crick. And she was, at it turned out, correct. After the visit, Watson and Crick attempted to persuade Wilkins and Franklin to collaborate with them on another attempt at the structure of DNA, but their offer was declined.
In addition to sharing the photograph, Wilkins told them about a Medical Review Committee (MRC) presentation Franklin had given; the MRC sponsored various projects and included Franklin's supervisor and, coincidentally, one of Crick's mentors at Cambridge, Max Perutz. The very next day, Watson and Click contacted Perutz, who gave them the written summary of Franklin's unpublished data without her knowledge or consent. Perutz later tried to defend the move, but it is largely indefensible in terms of the ethics code that guides scientists.
According to Watson, Franklin's data refused to accept that the structure of DNA could only be helical. In reality, Franklin was simply being Franklin: exceedingly cautious. She was reluctant to put conclusions ahead of evidence, preferring to wait for all the data to come in first. Watson and Crick wanted to beat Pauling, however, in the race to be the first to model DNA. Caution was a trademark of Franklin's. According to one of her professors, "As a scientist, Miss Franklin was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook."
Franklin, Watson and Crick, and Wilson all had seminal articles published in a 1953 issue of Nature. Franklin's private papers show that she actually finished her article one day prior to Watson and Crick, and in that paper she discusses the double helical nature of DNA. In an interview with NOVA, Dr. Lynn Osman Elkin, a biological scientists discusses the possibility that Franklin would have beat Click and Watson to the punch had they not benefitted from illicit access to her work:
NOVA: How soon might she have worked it out if Watson and Crick hadn't gotten her data?
Elkin: Well, at one time Crick estimated that it would have taken her three months. I don't know how long it would have taken her, but I think the critical thing with the timing is that she was about to publish her paper on the B form. That's the March 17th draft that Aaron Klug discovered. And that paper was written well before March 17th, and then after the Watson-Crick structure was figured out, she modified it very minimally, and it became the third Nature paper.
There is no way without her data that Watson and Crick could have figured out the structure before [her March 17th draft] got published. Now, if that had gotten published first and then they figured it out—remember, she talked about the double helix in that paper—then even though they had figured out the actual structure, they would have had to incorporate her information and credit her properly, and she would not have been written out of history.
In their 1953 paper, Watson and Crick gave at best a passing mention of Franklin's contribution to their work; yet they invited Wilkins to be a contributing author on the article, when his role largely consisted of feeding them Franklin's data.
In 1958, Franklin died at the age of 37 from ovarian cancer, possibly as a result of her extensive work with X-ray diffraction (or from genetics; other members of her family also died from ovarian cancer). Prior to her death she made many more important discoveries in virology and other areas, publishing at least 12 noteworthy papers.
In 1962, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the Nobel prize. None of the men mentioned Franklin in their acceptance speeches. Since the Nobel committee does not award prizes posthumously, she was never considered for the award.
Franklin might have been relegated to the dustbin of science history had Watson not resurrected her--albeit unfavorably--in his book. The book so incensed one of Franklin's friends, Anne Sayre, she decided to set the record straight in a published defense of Franklin. New access to Franklin's unpublished correspondence and notes confirmed that Franklin likely would have made the discovery on her own, while the same cannot be said for Watson and Crick.
It's no surprise that Watson claimed otherwise in 1993, suggesting that Franklin's primary contribution was the photo, which they were "shown" and did not steal. Wilkins later admitted that he was probably wrong to share the photograph with Watson and Crick and chalked it up to being "naive."
Many groups, especially women's groups, have worked to attach Franklin's name to the DNA legacy largely credited to Click and Watson. How unfortunate that the sexism that confronted Franklin in her lifetime pursued her beyond the grave. It is hard to comprehend how anyone, after hearing Franklin's story, could continue to justify excluding her from this crucial, world-changing discovery.